SUNDAY REFLECTION IN OUANAMINTHE

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SUNDAY

Dawn comes at six prompt intimated by a chorus of cockerels, dogs  and motorcycles revving.  Breakfast is in the open bar downstairs a pleasant courtyard with the covering of leaves and a gentle wind flowing through. Eggs scrambled with tomatoes and chili, delicious bananas, stiff bread and good coffee. This is the time when we chat share and bond as a team, read the bible and pray together and …..wait. (Sometimes we wait for hours,  on Friday it was for seven) We wait for our escort, Pastor Rolex Poisson. He feels responsible for us and anxious that he does not lose his Scottish friends. This morning he is prompt and we climb into his 4×4 equipped with air con and a video screen that helps him reverse but at other times plays Christian music in Kompa style.

We turn right into the Main Street that runs from the border. Usually this a two way river of cars, motorcycles, wheel barrows, bicycles and people on foot intersecting  like ants cutting and swerving but somehow  never hitting each other. At the side of the road there are shops and stall selling biscuits, liquor, concrete blocks, metal gates, bags of rice, beans and cement. Today it is much quieter and the motorcyclists seem to be transporting well-dressed people to church clutching bibles. It is astonishing how people turn out in their smart trousers, dresses, shirts, ties and immaculate shining highly polished shoes. The contrast between the church goers and their surroundings is remarkable-especially when you see the almost non-existent washing facilities people have at home and the ever present dust which turns to mud after every thunderstorm.

IMG_3660When we arrive at the church there is a service in progress. The building is full and a couple hold a bar against the door to discourage anyone from entering at this point. We mingle with the people outside. Again this area is normally a hive of activity with stalls of all kinds and people coming and going. Today it is quieter, but at one stall a young man dressed in a blue football shirt and red cap is busy making pasta rolling it out and laying it on the table to dry in the sun. He is assisted by another young man in a bright orange top. The colours are sharp in the strong sun against the white walls of the courthouse, the rich green of the overhanging trees and a cloudless sky.

The church is full when we enter. 400 or so people on wooden benches. Some have brought their own seats, children on the front and people crowded to the side. There is a raised platform with a concrete balustrade where the elders the choir and band sit and we are ushered to a seat there. The worship is led by a strong woman swaying to the rhythms of the song. She is singing a psalm straight from the bible it does not seem to be a metric version. She leads and the band follows and there is a moment or two before the musicians can locate the key. It’s the bass player who gets it first and he hammers out the line with runs followed by the drummer and finally, after a hesitant start, the guitarist on his  “Starcaster” guitar with intricate decoration in a Kompa style. The leader does what was common years ago in the west of Scotland, she “puts out the line” by singing the line of the verse and the congregation follow. There are many verses (I could not see which psalm it was). When it ends it rises to a climax with a crescendo when the whole congregation joins in singing “Hallelujah!” which repeated several times, sores and finally softens like the waves of the sea.

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The pastor comes forward to welcome everyone, give notices, introduces his friends from across the sea, some are well  known now and he seems to making an appeal for help with building of the new church (this is a rented building) The choir sing and Pastor Reme preaches. He takes The parable of the wheat and the weeds as his theme. I can only pick up a few words. I cannot follow the sermon but somehow sense that God is speaking through him by the power of the Spirit. Soon the service is over and we find ourselves outside chatting to David his god daughter, Atheline Pierre, Toussaint  and  Therese . David is eager to read the English bible and points to verses in the psalms, Jeremiah and  Isaiah where his namesake is mentioned. There is something special in that time.

IMG_9831Later we visit a home. The others know the family but this is my first time. I have always found these visits hard. There is something that always shocks me and I never quite get used to seeing just what little people have and how the means of living and surviving are achieved with astonishing grace and resilience and yes, dignity. This visit is unlike any of the others. The home is as poor as any I have seen but within the cramped and dark concrete interior and the most basic items of furniture, there was an immediate sense of God’s presence. The father is lying on a mattress on the floor his head propped by a cushion yet dressed in a dignified manner his hands shaking involuntarily. He is severely paralyzed perhaps with Parkinson’s or motor neuron disease. We are not told, but his eyes shine with something I can only describe as a deep joy and contentment. It is a look I will never forget as he lies there his face creasing into a smile, surrounded by his family, his five children and his caring wife. We have brought some food: a bag of rice, pinto beans, pasta, stock cubes, a tin of sardines and some cooking oil. The family is touched and grateful. We pray for them, thanking God, asking for his blessing and then leave. Back into the car and the winding bumping ride through the maze of lanes, block houses, goats, rubbish waste ground and naked children, we know that we were the ones who have received the blessing.

REFLECTION

IMG_3772It has been said that the Haitian people carry a deep seated sense of abandonment.

In the Voodou story,  God created the world but was so disgusted with his creatures behaviour that he abandoned it to the demons, good and bad, who are now in control. Typically western commentators and travellers, in their arrogance and ignorance see this simply as a colourful and harmless expression of ancient cultural tradition. As Kim Wall and Caterina Clerici  “Voodou is the soul of Haitian people.” The Guardian (2015)  “ The religion was born with institutional slavery. Ripped from homelands and heritage, thousands of those who would become Haitians were shipped across the Atlantic to an island, where the indigenous population had already been wiped out, for backbreaking labour in cane plantations. They were treated as cattle. As animals to be bought and sold; worth nothing more than a cow. Often less Voodou is the response to that. Voodou says ‘no, I’m not a cow. Cows cannot dance, cows do not sing. Cows cannot become God. Not only am I a human being – I’m considerably more human than you. Watch me create divinity in this world you have given me that is so ugly and so hard. Watch me become God in front of your eyes.’ or Mark Husdon reporting on Leah Gordon in the Telegraph (2012)  “Voodoo is a set of ceremonies that bring down spirits. The spirits indicate they’re present by possessing the celebrants. An animal is sacrificed to feed the spirits, and there’s a lot of dancing and drumming that goes with that. I can’t see anything intrinsically threatening in that. And it’s a lot more entertaining than any church service I’ve been to.”

It is an all too common view which betrays a gross arrogance looking down, as it were, from the high intellectual ground and seeing religions as either dangerous or just quant. In this narrative, it was the Christian missionaries who created all the problems in Haiti. They ought, apparently,  to have left the people to their own beliefs and not interfered.  It is the worst sort of patronizing racism with more than a hint of colonialism in the lust not for the natural resources of materials and labour but  for the colour and distraction needed for a jaded over consumerist  lifestyle;  leaving these pitiful people to their poverty and despair because they seem colourful to us.  Mercifully, the Haitian Christians see it all so differently. The Church resists voodoo in all its manifestations and denounces it unequivocally.  The pastor has to deal with incidents of demon possession almost every day (we witnessed one such) and he doesn’t pussy foot about the issue.  This is a real battle and great care is given to warn the people to have nothing to do with these sinister and evil practices.

IMG_3767The sense of abandonment is played out too through the people’s history. Robbed of their homes, transported across the sea, condemned as slaves and when winning their freedom forced to pay for it, They were massacred by their neighbours, ruled over by corrupt leaders  and suffered a series of natural disastrous culminating in the cataclysmic earthquake of 2010. The world rallied to help in so many ways and, in just so many ways, left a situation much worse that when they had come. This is most graphically illustrated by the appalling cholera epidemic that followed the earthquake and devastated the islands population. Cholera was unknown on the island before and brought by UN soldiers who contaminated the water supply in an act of gross negligence, which they then tried to cover up. This story is told through Jonathan Katz’ vivid first-hand account  of the disasterThe Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster”

The most recent scandal involving Oxfam was just another example of the continuing cycle of despair adding to the overwhelming sense of hopeless abandonment.  Maybe I imagined it, but thought I could detect that sense of resignation in the faces of the people.

It is against this bleak backcloth that what Mission International is doing here is so encouraging and so relevant. The first contact was made with the church in Ounaminthe in 2009 and a team went out from Scotland in the following year.  Every year, and sometimes twice a year, teams have come to visit bringing gifts, words of encouragement, greetings and the promise to pray. This steady and unassuming commitment is beginning to break through the understandable cloud of suspicion, with the knowledge that the God who we serve has not abandoned his people and neither has his church.

Haiti mother and childMaybe it was fancy, but I thought I saw that in the smiles.

Crawford Mackenzie

 

Postcards from Haiti 7

IMG_9780The Church

The church meets in a rented building outside the courthouse. Like everything else it is built of concrete and tin and has a bombed-out look with vent holes, which, for all the world, could have been made by shells. It is filled with wooden benches, a dais at the front with fabric drapes, a lectern and a band section with drums and massive speakers. At the rear is a small room with a toilet and here a homeless family live. From the outside it looks grim, all misshapen concrete with holes as windows and two ill fitting metal doors opening out wards onto sand. At the top is an attempt at a church like pediment unfinished. These are all things you notice at first, but strangely with every visit it becomes familiar even homely and invested with a sense of peace and blessing. It is open every day and people come to pray or sit or lay out on the benches while prayer and praise services happen in the middle of the day.

The service begins at 8am but we get there at half past and mingle with the crowd outside. The pastor leads us in, through the narrow aisle between swaying sweaty bodies up to the front . The band is in full swing and the congregation with raised arms are dancing in praise. The noise is incredible, as the silence is remarkable when the bible is being read and the sermon preached punctuated only by a chorus of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” . Various elders take turns to lead in praise and we are welcomed. Richard brings greetings from the church in Scotland.

Later he preaches with the Pastor translating, but before that, the proposal for the new school and church building is presented and discussed. This was particularly useful as we now have a much clearer picture of what the people want and need and not so much what we or the architect, think they should have. Despite my initial misgivings (my design was effectively binned) I am heartened, as it represented an act of genuine consultation. The service continues, with the sermon, more praise and prayer and closes with the blessing. A Sunday school starts followed by a second service and, six hours later, we make our way back to the hotel in the ferocious heat. It was hard to take in. There were 400-500 at each service and 300plus at the Sunday school. The congregation is exploding. There were 6 new communicants admitted that day. The irrepressible joy expressed in worship seems contagious and we need time to think.

The Village Fire

zambiaI don’t where I heard it, or from whom, but it was about a wise Nigerian pastor who was preaching to a congregation of restless young men in a town north of Abuja on the Jos plateau. They were disaffected, frustrated and angry young men and he was struggling to get through to them and beginning to lose their attention. Some had been drawn to a new awakening in the old religions in the demonstrable power of the witch doctor, Some were stirred by Marxism while others were beginning to see Islam as the one true religion.

He told them a story.

There was a fire in a village up north in the bush. The flames tore through the fabric of roundavel so quickly that all the family inside were burned to death but, in the melee in the darkness, somehow, a two month old baby was plucked out of the inferno and was carried away alive. It was cared for by one of the families and miraculous survived unscathed.  The next morning the elders gathered to decide what to do. The most pressing issue concerned what was to happen to this child who the gods had so clearly blessed. Many wanted the honour of adopting and approached the elders with their claims. One said that he was rich and with money, could ensure a prosperous future for the child. Another said that he was educated and could give the child something that money could not buy. A third said that his wife had already raised six children; she had vast experience and was best placed to look after this special infant. The fourth claimant came forward but said nothing. When they asked him to speak, he showed them his arms. They were charred black with open wounds and third degree burns. He was the one who had plucked the child from the fire.

The pastor leaned over the makeshift pulpit and fixed the eyes of his congregation. “I don’t doubt” he said “ that the old religions, the religion of our ancestors are powerful, that they have much to teach us about the way we should live in harmony with nature and that the witch doctor is able to do amazing things, I don’t doubt that that we can learn much from Marxism especially in our post-colonial world, I don’t doubt that Islam is a great religion acknowledging that there is only one God and worthy of much respect, but…… you see…… I have to follow Jesus, because my God has charred arms. My God has nail holes in his hand. He is the one who plucked me from the fire.”

Crawford Mackenzie

Let us haste to Kelvingrove

They don’t ask me now, but people used to pose the question “As an architect and a Christian, wouldn’t you like to design a Church Building”   They were generally disappointed when I said “No, not really”  You see, I had no desire, inspiration or passion to design a church.  I had always believed (and still do) that the church is not a building.  It is the people of God wherever they are and wherever the met. The building was and is incidental.  That is not to say that I was not deeply affected and sometimes awe struck when visiting great church buildings: with the sheer majesty of the cathedral church of Notre-Dame de Reims, with the intimacy and simplicity of the parish church on Papa Stour, with monasteries in Romania and reformed churches in Hungary, with the work of Alvar Aalto and Corbusier especially with Notre Dame du Haut and many many more. Yet my appreciation of these building was perhaps esoteric and detached and I would have no conviction that they related at all to a real and living church, a gathering of God’s people for worship and service. There was a disconnect in my mind.

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I had qualified in 1973 and worked for 7 years with the late Jack Notman in Glasgow.  His output as far as building was not prolific but I learned much during my time with him. I still follow the principles that I learned then: designing buildings, that were of quality and would last, that would provide comfort and convenience and would be life affirming for those who use them, that were designed using the simple elements of space, light, materials, colour and textures, examining how spaces connect with each other, how people move though a building and what it says about who we are and what we are about. The aim was always to achieve something of real value with a timeless quality.

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Towards the end of my time with Jack Notman, I was involved in a number of significant projects, among them, the conversation of  Trinity Congregational Church, in the west end of Glasgow, as a rehearsal and concert hall for the then Scottish National Orchestra (now the RSNO). It was a very interesting project as it involved changing the role of the building from an ecclesiastical one to an arts and entertainment one. It was challenge to de- ecclesiasticise the structure, while retaining its character. It was opened by Princess Margaret in 1978, became a very successful project, won several awards and remained the home for the orchestra up until very recently.   Not long after it was opened, I was at a concert with a friend, who was a minister and, during the interval, he turned to me and said “This would make a good church”.  The throw-a-way comment stuck with me and I came to see that Church Buildings are, in fact, important. They do matter and like the clothes we wear, affect how we feel about ourselves and how others view us.  So began, for me, a new direction in the adapting and refurbishing of church buildings, altering, extending, re-ordering, refreshing , preparing feasibility studies and designs for new buildings which has extended to over 50 individual projects for a wide variety of Christian denominations.

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So it is not difficult to understand my surprise and my delight when I heard, just this week, that Trinity Congregational Church designed by John Honeyman in 1863, converted into the Henry Wood Hall by Jack Notman in 1978 was to begin a third life as a Church Building in 2016 as The Tron Kelvingrove.

Crawford Mackenzie

(I was not the Job Architect on this project but helped with drawings and details. The person who was, and who did all the real work on it, was Nigel Duncan)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Purposeful Habit 1

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“How to be a Christian without going to church”  Kelly Bean       A Book Review

I am not in the habit of writing book reviews. I am such a slow reader and others do that so much better, but after creating a little stir with a rather flippant post using a play on the title of a book I had just read, I felt I had to explain myself. It was a light hearted jibe but one with a serious point.

It is “How to be a Christian without going to church”  by Kelly Bean, published by Baker Books.  The title catches the eye as it is clearly intended to do and the book addresses the issue of what the writer calls “No-Goers”, of which she is one. These are people who no longer go to church. They are not people who have been believers, have become disillusioned with the church , “lost their faith” and say that they no longer believe,  they are people who leave, yet maintain and continue to practice their orthodox Christian faith.  From the research, which the writer quotes, this has become, in recent years, an unstoppable flood.

There are a series of stories and testimonies from people who have left, to give put some flesh on the background and explain the reasons for leaving: “for their own sanity”, “the structure was killing my faith”,I felt undervalued”,  “I faced rejection and judgement”,  “The system was broken”, “It didn’t match my style” and many other painful stories. It seemed an endless list of damaged and frustrated people who appear to be stifled but flourish when they finally take the step to leave “After 17 years of not going to church my faith is stronger than ever”.  It is a sad and depressing catalogue of failure, but one than anyone who is involved in the church in the west today will easily recognise.

Kelly Bean makes it clear at the outset that she is not against the church. She wants it to be there, to continue and to grow. She would never discourage anyone from joining or sticking with it, she just feels, with a growing number of likeminded people, that it is not for her or for them. She is not, however, advocating being a solitary Christian in fact quite the opposite and here is where her argument seems a little confused and contradictory. She talks about the big shift from “Going to Church to “Being Church”. The first suggesting simply the activity of regularly going to a place, a building , to do whatever. It is understandable why this should be derided because we are called “to be” a holy nation, a people of God, a light to the world.  But if we are to share with any believing community, it involves some movement –we have to go there unless we are always living together. So “Going to Church” is just as relevant and expression. Towards the end of the book she describes intentional communities “ Something is taking shape and spreading as Christians far and wide come together (my emphasis) in a variety of small communities committed to a life lived in simplicity, humility and for others”  so clearly she sees the new movement of non-goers actually going somewhere and it looks like to another church.

I think she is also a little muddled. On the one hand she makes it clear that the church is, as we have always been taught, not a building, a structure, a denomination, an organisation, but the people of God, wherever they come together in twos or threes or in hundreds.  As a “Non-goer” she doesn’t want to be part of this church but, I believe, despite her protestations to the contrary, she is actually trying to set up another church. In her guide to “alternative forms of Christian community” there is alternative worship, alternative bible study, alternative money, alternative baptism and dedication of children, alternative missionary work and even alternative Sunday school and youth groups. In her turning away from all the structures of the church she has defined another church which looks remarkably like the one she has rejected. And what she fails to see is that this simply repeats so much of what has happened throughout the Church’s history.

All the problems she described in “Why are people leaving” are failings in the structures, the organisations, the leadership, and the people but not with its essential reason for being, or with its King and head. The church, I believe, needs reformation not rejection.

I was also struck by two things, which I have to say coloured my whole feeling about the book:

The first is that there is little or no mention of whose church it is. The church is seen as of the people, by the people, for the people, for the community and for the world, when all the time it is God’s. It belongs to him.  It is the church of Jesus Christ.  It is not ours. So we can’t decide what it should be, what it should be like or who should be in it. That is entirely God’s business not ours. Maybe this was taken as read but the fact that it was never stated makes me wonder if the thought was ever in the writers mind.

The second is that, while the Bible is mentioned in a few occasion and quoted very occasionally, there is no hint that these new alternative ways of being community are based or grounded at all on Scripture. Maybe that is also taken as read, but, again, I don’t think so. This omission is serious. At a stroke it knocks away the foundation, disconnects from the basis of the true faith and opens the way for any kind of whimsical and transient philosophy or personality cult to take over and lead to anywhere. The “Non Goers” movement doesn’t seem to be rooted in the Bible but centred on “shared values” and focused on “core beliefs” like those outlined in one quote:

  • God is good. I will practise trusting God with my life
  • God is love. I will practice taking care of myself and loving others
  • God is with me. I will practice peace and not being afraid
  • God wants to talk with me. I will practice listening to Him and talking with Him
  • God always forgives. I will practice forgiving myself and others
  • I feel blessed with this Good News. I will practice being thankful and celebrating moments
  • God has a story of love. He tells it through us. I will practice partnering with Him to bring it to others

At first sight it is maybe hard to find fault with this. But where does it come from? What is it based on? Where is the underlying authority for such statements? How are they defined? When you actually look at the list, there is nothing specifically Christian about it. There is nothing of Christ in it.  I am curious why his name is not mentioned. Is it because, in this creed, Jesus is unnecessary and redundant?  The “Good news” seems to be that “God always forgives”. He will forgive anyway. “It’s his job” as someone has said. If this is an example of where the “Non-goers” movement leads then it is not just alarming it is potentially very dangerous.

If you have read this far you, may not agree, but you will understand why I am concerned.

This is only my take. Go and read it yourself and see what you think and if you disagree let me know.

Crawford Mackenzie

The Bookend

First of all you have to understand that the church has always been part of my life. Not just a part but one of the most significant parts of it. It is family. Blood is thicker than water but this bond is thicker. So going to church has always been my habit. Not that the church is a place, it is people, but people come together in a place and unless you are a king or celebrity, people don’t generally congregate around you. You have to go to them.  So the term “Going to church” is a valid one and a vital part of life for anyone who is a follower of Jesus. Like family, however, it is not always sweetness and light, its history has not always been something to be proud of, its people sometimes drive you crazy and at times you stretch their patience too. We blow up, fall out, walk out and separate but one thing remains a constant, we are part of God’s family and he won’t change that. It is not a right but a gift and if I was a preacher I could probably explain that much better.

Now the church, which I belong to, has two services on a Sunday: a morning and evening service. This is not for convenience but deliberately as part of tradition going back many years. Nowadays, however, the question keeps coming up: “Why two?”  “Why would you need to want to go twice?” “Surely once is enough”. But it is not a rule thing. It is not a commandment. You would be hard pressed to find something in the Bible that lays down that law. But it comes, I believe, from how we view the day itself.  For followers of Jesus, Sunday is the “Lord’s Day”. It belongs to him. It is not our day. In one sense every day is His day but Sunday is especially for him and that is where the evening service comes into its own. It is a bookend. The morning and evening services are bookends to the Lord’s Day.

This Sunday, after a full on weekend wholly exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally with the stress of logistics, the heat of the kitchen, the intercourse with so many people from so many parts of the world (a weekend away with Friends International), we arrived back in the evening just in time for our evening service. While the voice of common sense said, “relax, unwind, sit down, have a bath, go to bed, chill out”, instead we went to church and joined our church family in worship, praying, reading, sharing and listening to God’s voice. Entering the building late we were met with the sound of singing, of many voices old and young, high and deep, together and in harmony, coming from the heart, rising to the roof and beyond.  It would be very hard to begin to describe the all-embracing sense of wholeness, healing, invigoration, revitalisation and excitement that overwhelmed us as we joined the people in this special time, this bookend to the Lord’s Day.  And …I thought… there is nowhere else I would rather be.

Crawford Mackenzie

The Fishing Net

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When I arrived in Aberdeen in the autumn of 1967, to begin my studies at the School of Architecture, the first thing I did with my student grant, after paying my dig money, was to buy a guitar. It was nylon string bottom of the range Tatra classic from Bruce Millers in George Street.  At the same time I became involved in a Friday night coffee bar run from the basement of the Salvation Army Citadel at the west end of Castle street. You entered through a small door on a side street, where the North Sea wind hurled its way up into town, and down a flight of stairs to a brightly painted room with a small stage and mic and a counter at the other end serving hot milky coffee, Coke and Fanta. The café was called “The fishing net” a reference to Jesus’s commission to Peter “I will make you a fisher of men”. It was decorated with paintings of fish, seaweed, brightly colourer nets and fishing tackle. During the evening a small folk trio or solo artist would play and sing and someone would speak with a message. It was run by a number of churches in the city with the aim of making connections with young folk on the streets on a Friday evening. , They were invited in, befriended and engaged in conversation.  I had only been going for a few weeks when one of the leaders asked me to play and sing on the following Friday. With foolish naivety, I accepted, completely oblivious to the fact that I had no material and had never sung, far less played guitar, in public before.  Hastily I scratched a couple of songs together, one which had a remarkable and not unconscious resemblance to the Kinks “Sunny afternoon” and the other to the Beatles “a day in a life” The third was a spiritual. I practised hard but as the day grew nearer became more and more aware of my foolishness. I remember the night very clearly, walking across to the stage with guitar over shoulder shaking like a leaf, thinking “I can’t do this” and praying “lord if you really want me to do this, let it be you who does it”. It is a prayer I have found myself praying each time I have been asked to sing, since. The noisy room was suddenly stilled and as I ham fistedly clunked my way through the songs I had this strange experience as if standing outside myself looking on as someone else took over, carrying the message to the hearers.

Once finished and with the waves of relief pouring over me I relaxed at a table and fell into a discussion with a slightly inebriated leather clad rocker. He wasn’t interested in the songs but wanted to argue about the existence of God.  I was helpless and could offer no good explanation or original thought.  We were soon joined by two others, one clutching a battered bible. Suddenly there was clarity and rational in the discussion and I sat back with dropped jaw listening to the discussion amazed at the command of our new friend. (the one doing the talking) He had understanding and ability to communicate the cosmic realities of creation and redemption and the wonder of the gospel in spell bounding clarity. It was only after he left that I learned that he was already well known in student and church groups, the president of the Christian Union in the University and later a significant figure in Reformed Christian circles both in Scotland and the USA, highly regarded for his teaching, writing and editorial work.  So it was a surprise,  that our lives should cross again some 45+years later, when we both joined with our families, in our new church setting. It was an added and unexpected delight to hear him preach. While some preachers become old and tired and tread well-worn predicable paths and others have spoken for a specific time and place, his preaching carried refreshing  timeless authority, vitality and relevance.   Now endowed with the richness of truth distilled slowly through the years it was presented with crystal clarity, much as it was, around the table, in the basement café, all these years ago.

Crawford mackenzie